Going Global

The Satanic Verses, the Moor in The Moor's Last Sigh, and his other alter-ego narrators. Rai seems to speak for Rushdie when he explains how he "worships the God of the imagination," "has a hole inside where God could be," and gives in to postmodern pessimism: "The modern family is our shelter against terror and despair." At such transparent moments, Rushdie's Rai-mask falls off and all we're left with is the artless.

Toni Morrison has lauded The Ground Beneath Her Feet as a "global novel." That's a concept worth pondering: What exactly is a "global novel"? And who are the global novelists? On its surface, the term would seem to describe the work of those writers with mixed cultural backgrounds who seem not to fit into any of the usual modern regional traditions. Whole schools of "post-colonial" literature have arisen at the end of the century featuring novelists who draw on mixed cultural sources. This is especially apparent among Indian and Asian authors: the Seth/Ghosh/Tharoor/Roy/Amit Chaudhuri/Kiran Desai/Diva-karuni Indian expatriates who have earned their fame in the West by writing about an exoticized East. And there's the P.C.-obsessed "Asian-American"/diaspora writer tradition, the Amy Tan/Bharati Mukherji/Jhumpa Lahiri types, whose reputations have come from writing about American encounters between East and West.

Some readers may encounter a novel about expatriate displacement, or one that hops from place to place and produces a vague feeling of internationalism, and see "globalism." Such novels surely have their merits, but they are about the opposite of globalism: They are about difference. "Globalism," if the idea is to describe anything, is about cultural melding; about dynamic syncretism. At their core, such works are not merely geographically diffuse. On the contrary, they draw their strength from highly specific contexts of places and cultures in flux. (And if, in the end, they transcend the specific details of their settings to recognize the timeless elements of human nature amid such flux, then they are truly successful in their globalism.)

Cultural syncretism is at the core of Rushdie's work, and especially so in this latest novel. Yet the manner in which he has chosen to tell his story undercuts the power of his theme. Rushdie's thematic globalism is nearly undone by his stylistic postmodernism.

Critics have grouped Rushdie among those artists that turn the multicultural and hybrid into an entire aesthetic. But an aesthetic that is bound by the rigidities of a perishable, voguish political ideology risks inherent limitations, and Rushdie's novel falls prey to them. His use of a gimmick-ridden postmodern style, with characters who can talk about their identities only in terms of "constructing themselves," threatens the subtle, meditative art of the novel by revealing the skeleton of his work, if not of his very imagination. In the course of so much self-conscious allusion making, his characters often come across as cartoonish cutouts.

Sometimes, Rushdie's own characters seem to have concluded that postmodernism is no longer a fertile aesthetic, so maybe this novel documents his own realization of its limitations. At one point, Rai says, "We've reached the point in the century when we must eschew all ironic communication." Later he says, "Lead us not into exotica, deliver us from the nostalgic." He understands the global: "A kind of India happens everywhere, that's the truth too; everywhere is terrible and wonder-filled and overwhelming if you open your sense to the actual pulsating beat." He notes the similarity between Bombay's amputees and "the many mutilations of soul to be found on New York street corners." In Ormus, Rushdie has created an artist who (at least for the term of this novel) is more successful than himself in manifesting globalism. An irritated Ormus asks the category-happy record producer Voight, "Do I have to be a color? Can't we get beyond, finally, I mean can't we get under our skins." The other side of the same paradox is that Rushdie's book ultimately bends to the very notions it satirizes, and he begins to resemble the jargony professors and sound bite makers he ridicules.

Yet, to give him credit, Rushdie can sometimes make the approach work. Here is the most moving passage in the novel, in which Rai (probably speaking for Rushdie) bids India a stunningly passionate farewell, as if he's divorcing a much-loved wife: "My home is burned, my parents dead, and those I loved have mostly gone away....I go--I hunt--alone....Oh, why must everything I say end up sounding like a...goddamn cheap Bollywood song? Very well, then...India, my terra infirma, my maelstrom, cornucopia, my crowd. India, my Hug-me, my fable, my mother, my father, and my first great truth. It may be that I am not worthy of you, for I have been imperfect, I confess. I may not comprehend what you are becoming, what perhaps you already are, but I am old enough to say that this new self of yours is an entity I no longer want, or need, to understand. India, fount of my imagination, source of my savagery, breaker of my heart. Goodbye." He calls the chapter "The Decisive Moment."

Not surprisingly, the material that Rushdie is currently contemplating is set solely in the West. His farewell comes after several famous novels set in India, including the Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children (1981), Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses (1988), and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995). East-West, a 1994 collection of short stories set in India and England, may highlight Rushdie's dilemma as a writer. In "The Harmony of the Spheres," the narrator tries to explain his fascination with the occult: "In that world of magic and power there seemed to exist the kind of fusion of world views, European Amerindian Oriental Levantine, in which I desperately wanted to believe." In the final story, "Courter," the narrator observes, "I, too, have ropes around my neck, I have them to this day, pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose. I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear, I kick. Ropes, I do not choose between you. Lassoes, Lariats, I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose." Perhaps now, Rushdie is choosing after all.

But Rushdie's cultural choices are unlikely ever to exclude the global. He addressed its personal significance in a speech he prepared for the first anniversary of the fatwa against him. "Those who oppose The Satanic Verses the most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own," he wrote. "I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrated hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization, and fears the absolute of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world...change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves."

A decade later, Rushdie no longer needs to draw attention to "mongrelization" as though it is the appealingly risqué exception to the norm of our present condition. Rather, cultural fusion in this novel is the natural state of things, and he writes of it as the everyday occurrence it has become. Maybe, as Rai says, the only people who can see that picture whole are, like Rushdie, the ones who step outside the frame.

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